Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

2016 has been what I’d call a messy year, but at least we’re getting more Harry Potter. If there’s a consolation prize to be had, it’s that. However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t Harry Potter. It’s its own thing, and we all knew that going in, even if we hoped otherwise. It’s a strange kind of disappointment, because it’s our own fault even if we don’t want to admit it.

Or I’m massively projecting. Either way, the movie is pretty good, but you know, not amazing because it isn’t Harry Potter.

I’ve seen Fantastic Beasts’ plot broken down into a comparison of Dr. Who and Pokemon; however, I don’t really agree. There are some beasts that need finding, but five is a far cry from 150. Fantastic Beasts is far more concerned with world building. America’s wizarding world has its own rules, Aurors, president, and a mounting tension between wizards and Muggles. It doesn’t help that the threat of Grindelwald is looming heavy over everything. In many respects, Newt Scamander and his beasts are simply along for the ride.

Fantastic Beasts is a movie that tries to do too much with too little time. There’s a reason fantasy works better in novel formats: The world building requires pages of space to work with. Hogwarts took thick books to feel real, and New York’s wizarding world feels like it needs the same treatment. Sadly, it doesn’t get pages but a few hours of our time, and that time is heavily split between America, Newt, and a few minor subplots involving a crazy, abusive orphanage of sorts. We can’t have a Harry Potter anything without some child abuse!

Other than the child abuse subplot–which, if nothing else, turns into some cool world building/lore–the two big story elements could be the main focus of the movie with nothing lost. A razor-sharp look at Newt and his animals would have made for an amazing ride of whimsy and awe while a movie about the American wizarding world by itself could have been a breathtaking journey into a new world that’s both familiar and not.

Instead we get both, and the movie  is a bit muddled for it. Thankfully, it isn’t muddled in the same way Warcraft is; I’ve come away here wanting more, not less, but it still detracts some. Had this story been a book, we could have easily had both plots and then some. In a way, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of a traditional Harry Potter flick: absolutely serviceable and fun but with a few too many cuts to feel like that 100% adaptation I want.

And for a movie titled Fantastic Beasts, they really do get waysided. The ones we do see are great, but most show up once as spectacle only to never return. The few that return do so in a Batman-styled utility belt kind of way, “Well this monster can do this to save us from this jam,” before going back to the belt.

It’s not like this is a bad thing though. It’s the beasts themselves that provide the most whimsy and potential for jaw-drops, and each is stunning in its own right. Seeing them move and interact with Newt really made this movie feel like a piece of the Harry Potter world, but a movie titled fantastic beasts should have more focus on them.

Once again, too much to do in not enough space.

If there is another problem, it’s Newt Scamader himself. As a character, he’s more quirks than actual development, making him entertaining for the first leg of the movie and somewhat boring by the end. He’s the guy that likes animals more than people, but we’re never given any reason as to why. There are hints, but without some solid background information, he’s just an eccentric in an eccentric world.

Meanwhile, we have terrorism, child abuse, shady politics, and the threat of open war between wizards and Muggles going on, and I’ll be damned, that seems more interesting.

Thankfully Newt’s two cohorts are far more worthwhile. Jacob Kowalski is a Muggle who bumps into Newt and makes the classic briefcase swap. When animals escape and start rampaging, Jacob gets wrapped up into the wizarding world. He acts as the perfect viewer cipher, going from bewildered and unsure to absolutely delighted. My reactions were pretty much on point with his from start to finish.

But the best part about Jacob is that he’s given very relatable fears and goals. While Newt is stuck in animal wonderland, Jacob wants to open a bakery because he hates working at a canning factory. That’s it. It’s that simple, and it’s in that simplicity that makes Jacob an amazing character to follow. I cared about him throughout the flick, because I sympathized with him. He makes sense.

He’s also completely adorable.

Tina Goldstein is our third hero, a down-on-her-luck Auror who is trying to make up for some past mistakes. Like Jacob, she’s not terribly complicated, and like Jacob, that works in her favor. She really just wants her job back and the respect that comes with it, and what starts as a simple arrest turns into a complete disaster for her and the rest of New York.

Fantastic Beasts falls into an interesting area because Hogwarts is half a world away and all of the characters are adults. The movie is also a few decades in the past, taking place long before Harry Potter was ever born. Yet we aren’t looking at a prequel but a compendium to the wizarding world as a whole, a piece of world building, but for the wrong continent. This is the story of the author of one textbook used for one semester in Hogwarts.

None of that is bad. Hell, in a way it’s all for the best. We all know what happened when Star Wars was given its direct prequels, and we’re all still actively trying to forget those movies. I’d be upset if Rowling approached Harry Potter in a way that was directly tied to Harry because his story is over. It’s fine to let a franchise end where it’s supposed to. It’s why I haven’t picked up The Cursed Child and have no intention of doing so.

That being said, I suppose now that I have my cake, I want to eat it too. My favorite parts of this movie were the nods to the main series as a whole, such as the namedrop of Hogwarts, Newt’s use of the word, “Muggle,” and of course, Grindelwald as the big menace hiding in the background. Let’s be frank here: We all know why we’re going to go see this movie, regardless of reviews or expectations.

It’s more Harry Potter… even if it isn’t.

On Writing My Third Novel

Back in August, I wrote a short essay titled, “Permission to Fail,” where I vented about writing and editing my second novel which concluded with me hinting at starting a third novel. I then went on a 100-day break of no blog posts.

Gee, I wonder what I was doing!

I finished the first draft of Toyland sometime last week. It measures almost 75,000 words and, as far as first drafts go, is a complete mess. Good god the amount of work I’ll have to put into this thing to get it into shape is staggering. Continuity errors, continuity errors everywhere! Not to mention the slipups in writing, the overly-long action sequences that are hard to follow, and the immature level of cursing that goes on.

Seriously. I think I drop over a 100 fuck bombs in this one. I haven’t counted yet because I’m afraid to.

Before I continue, here’s a quick-and-dirty plot summary of Toyland:

BP6 is the sixth pawn in the black kingdom. He’s a chess piece, and he hates being a chess piece. It’s a pretty shitty gig, so he spends his free time snorting sugar, drinking soda, and sexually harassing Darbie Dolls as a way to forget how much he hates himself. Things change when he drunkenly sneaks into a G.I. base and steals a top-secret weapon that’s actually just a lighter.

BP6 takes this weapon back to his kingdom, lights everyone he hates on fire, and then proceeds to go on a drunken rampage through Toyland. His long-time friend John (G.I. John instead of G.I. Joe because trademarks) is after him, but it doesn’t take long for half of Toyland to join in the hunt. This is a weapon that works!

The novel itself is one parts action, one parts dark comedy, and maybe six parts existential angst. Much like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story movie, all of the toys in Toyland think they are real save BP6. BP6, however, is ill equipped to handle the realization that he’s not real, so he turns to violence and drugs.If he isn’t real, then neither is anyone else and who cares who dies?

It’s a strange, strange novel.

The ideas behind Toyland are old. I created the basic premise somewhere around 2011 when I was working a job I loathed and wished I could burn the place to the ground. I felt like a pawn. It was then that I wrote the first line to the novel, one I’ve been carrying around for five years:

The plastic man in army fatigues walked through the cardboard castle.

See, BP6 isn’t really the main character, his friend John is. John’s the one who has to come to terms with the fact that his best friend is a monster, that the army he trusts keeps dark secrets, and that Toyland isn’t what he’s been lead to believe it is. There are monsters out there.

Or that was the idea. As it turned out, there are four main characters in this novel: BP6, John, Frank (he’s a Viper Commando), and White Knight 2.

This was a delightful surprise at first. The best part about writing is the discovery; however, the worst part about writing is the discovery. I wrote myself into more complex situations than a dumb book about a pissed off talking toy really needs, and juggling multiple characters isn’t exactly easy. I don’t know how George R. R. Martin does it.

Each character winds up meeting more characters as the story goes on, so what started with four people wound up turning into over 20. John has three squadmates, Frank has three squadmates, and both BP6 and WK2 find all sorts of crazy folk on the floor of Toyland. Then there are the main villains, a Mega Brick Kingpin that I based off of Samuel L Jackson, a depressed underground railroad train that was built under the ground and can’t escape, and a pet lizard that showed up out of goddamned nowhere. Seriously Casey, why?

There are characters I created to move the plot along assuming they’d offer some exposition or direction that wound up living all the way to the end. Because writing is about discovery, and that’s a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t kind of game.

It was fun though. My biggest worry about writing is that it’ll turn into a chore, that I’ll get used to it and start going through the motions. This book though, this book was damn fun to write. I got to create the most bizarre, stupid world of my writing life thus far, and that’s saying something as I’ve written high fantasy.

I have fight sequences where transforming robots are trying to take a water fountain so they can steal water balloons, and I have another fight sequences that takes place inside a giant Mega Brick city. Think The Lego Movie but with more dismemberment and swearing.

Almost all the characters are out of their minds in some way, too.

If I learned anything, it’s that the reasons I enjoy writing haven’t changed. Discovery is fun, and outlining ruins that. I did almost zero planning for this book, and yeah it threw me into some really hard directions to work with, but it was always fun. I’ll fix the problems later.

I also learned that keeping a sheet of notes as you go is as necessary as ever, even if I once again didn’t do that. Old habits die hard. Less also continues to be more, adverbials are still the devil, and describing a stuffed animal burning to death is a lot harder than it sounds.

Toyland did mark the first book that I shopped ideas with a writing circle. I’ve stumbled upon a few places via Facebook and Neogaf this year, and they really proved their worth. I never asked for feedback on wording, paragraphs, or chapters, but going, “Hey what if” wound up being super valuable.

Corners are easier to navigate out of when you have outside perspective.

I don’t know what will happen with this book when it’s done. I also don’t know if this blog post has any value other than my own self wanking. Regardless, I hope there’s entertainment to be found somewhere, because while fun is the first rule, I try to make entertainment the second. I’ve read too many bad books to not want to at least be entertaining.

Derek Kent’s Kubrick’s Game Review

Reviewers Note: My copy of Kubrick’s Game was supplied by the author. The novel releases September 26th, 2016 and can be preordered here

I don’t normally do log lines, but since Derek Taylor Kent’s newest novel is about movies, I think it’s fitting. Kubrick’s Game is Ready Player One written by Dan Brown…but about Kubrick movies instead of 1980’s pop culture. Here’s the thing though: I don’t like Ready Player One or Dan Brown. The former has maybe four good ideas executed in the worst way possible and the latter is a gimmick writer at best.

So when I say Kubrick’s Game is better than both, know that the bar isn’t set all that high.

Let’s get the basic plot out of the way. Shawn is a twenty-something in film school with a crush on his TA. He’s on the autism spectrum. His tick is movies. He especially loves Kubrick, and when his school is given a puzzle to solve—by the late Kubrick himself—he and his two friends are scooped up as major players. Of course, the puzzle turns out to be dangerous because what’s a book without a little danger?

The core of Kubrick’s Game is its puzzle, or its series of puzzles. Similar to Ready Player One which had a large quest embedded in 1980’s trivia, this book has its quest split through every Kubrick movie. All of the little flaws and debates the world has been having since Spartacus through Eyes Wide Shut were released are here, and the longer the book goes on, the more deliberate all those supposed flaws appear to be.

It’s honestly brilliant. I know a bit about Kubrick, enough to enjoy his movies, and I was nodding most of the way. It all fits together shockingly well, made better with captioned pictures from the movies. This book doesn’t just tell you how this works; it shows you. It’s a wonderful piece of movie history, of research, and of intertextual criticism. I cannot fathom how much work went into this book. (I mostly don’t want to because it would give me a headache.)

Plus, it’ll make you appreciate Kubrick on a whole ‘nother level. I have to rewatch A Clockwork Orange now. And all of his other movies, if I’m being honest.

I wonder…I wonder if this book would have been better served as a Holy Blood; Holy Grail type story. For those who don’t know, that’s the book that Dan Brown damn near plagiarized when he wrote The Da Vinci Code. It’s a long piece of “nonfiction” about Jesus and what The Bible doesn’t tell you, and you can find snippets of it on Google Books if you’re bored.

This book could have been that. Keep the research, keep the links between all the movies, and alter the agenda slightly. If Mr. Kent really wanted to, he could have convinced us all that Kubrick filmed [insert one of a thousand conspiracy theories here].

Speaking of which, this novel is loaded to the brim with conspiracy theories. I’m not a fan, meaning my eyes were rolling more than they should have been. They do somewhat fit here given Kubrick’s use of illuminati and freemason imagery, but I half check out when either show up regardless of context.

I don’t want to say it’s the characters that lessen this book, because they don’t. Honestly, all of them are fine and flawed in believable/interesting ways. Shawn is obsessed with making movies on a technical level because he doesn’t understand the emotional significance of them, Wilson is a has-been child actor who wants to be a director, and Sami is the aforementioned TA who doesn’t like Shawn in any romantic way whatsoever. They’re all fine. Hell, the idea of someone who only wants to know how movies are made technically is actually a great struggle because most of us watch them to be entertained and spoken to emotionally. He’s operating on a level I cannot fathom, and it’s handled well.

But the novel itself feels like it’s going through the motions most of the time. The plot speeds along at a fine pace as we hit the obligatory action and relationship drama needed to make a YA novel a YA novel. When I say this book is like Ready Player One, it’s because it hits almost all of those story beats. It’s actually a little boring.

It doesn’t help that just like in Ready Player One, there are long conversations about Kubrick movies that feel more like essays than plot progression.

The action and relationship drama break up the mystery and long essays on film theory, but neither are what I’d call realistic. The first handful of action sequences work, and I suppose they’re fun, but as the stakes ramp up and dangerous people bring out guns and knives, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one was calling the cops. By the final, climactic “fight,” realism is all but gone as gangsters are tackled and their guns are dropped.

The relationship drama is a bit trickier, because half of it makes sense given the context of Shawn as a character; however, I still didn’t care for it. It only ever came off as a distraction, and most of the big drama comes directly from Shawn saying or doing something stupid. I recall one scene that had me cringe so hard I almost stopped reading the book altogether.

Kubrick’s Game is a hard book to review because it technically doesn’t do anything wrong. It handles its core concept well, it has moments of fun, and I enjoyed the characters (for the most part). The ending is kind of bonkers, and I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not. However, there are parts that rubbed me the wrong way, little things that add up over the course of a book, and having read a few novels similar to this one before, I don’t see much that sets this one apart.

Well, other than the fact that it’s written better.

I guess I’ll end with this: If you haven’t read Ready Player One and want a clue-based mystery, this is worth a look. If you have read Ready Player One and liked it, then you’ll like this. It’s better.

If you have read Ready Player One and didn’t like it though, well, this may not sway you at all

Permission to Fail

About three months and some change ago, I finished my second novel. I meant to do a post-mortem on it right away, but finishing draft five feels no different than finishing draft four or three. It’s just by draft five I’m so sick of my stupid self that I can’t take another look without wanting to gouge my own fucking eyes out.

I guess it’s also better than drafts three and four, but eh.

The last two months have been awash in sending my query package to agents along with sample pages. So far I’ve had one bite and 13 official rejections, which is a nice ratio all things considered. It’s hard to really feel positive though; the one maybe cannot outshine 13 no’s.

It’s also worth noting that about four days ago I rewrote the first paragraph again. An editor’s job is never done and an author will forever hate his books regardless of how many times he or she looks at them.

I’m pretty sure if you LIKE what you’ve written, you’re doing it wrong. Stop being so positive. It hurts me on a philosophical level.

At any rate, come Sunday I’ll get up early, fire on my PC, toss on some heavy metal, and then go through another few pages of a literary agent database and send my stuff out. Next week will be a trickle of, “go away please” whenever as I check my email when I get home from work. Rinse, lather, repeat until a year has passed.

Fun fact: This whole endeavor causes me to grind my teeth at night. I try to overcome stress with a constant stream of self doubt and loathing, but I just can’t shake the little hope I have every time I check my email when I get home. With that hope comes dread, and that usually wins.

Why the fuck do we do this, guys? Good god. It’s insane.

Failure isn’t just a possibility; it’s an inevitability. The odds of getting picked up by an agent who can then sell my fucking book are so terrible that the only thing keeping me going is blind stubbornness. Well, that and spite. There are worse reasons to do something stupid.

Because at this point, hope can fuck right off. I’m sick of that scrawny little bastard.

However, despite the above vomit of negativity, I’m feeling pretty alright. See, I’ve had this novel idea kicking around since 2012, and as of two days ago, it’s starting to yell at me again. It’s very persuasive.

Back when I had the idea, I never thought I could write a novel. I was too inexperienced and needed to cut my teeth on short stories first, which I never got around to writing because I was a lazy asshole. It wasn’t until…what, 2014? that I wrote my first book because the idea would not stop yelling at me until I tried.

Two novels later and now I know the game…well, somewhat. I know that it’s fun if I do it right and that first drafts suck. I know that it’s at its best when I give myself permission to fail.

I did not do this for my second book. That was a big mistake.

I just got done penning myself a little note in a Word document. It reads thusly:

Just so you know, future self, it’s okay if this book is complete garbage. Honestly, it will be at first. That’s how this went the last two times, remember? So please, please, please don’t stress out about that shit and just have fun. This one needs to be fun. It’ll be the biggest shame in your writing life if this isn’t fun. Enjoy. Worry about quality later.

AND DO NOT OVERTHINK EVERYTHING WHILE YOU ARE AT WORK YOU STUPID CUNT OR YOU WILL RUIN EVERYTHING LIKE LAST TIME

I mean, it isn’t poetry or even good, but it’s important. It’s the difference between me approaching this thing with my head up my ass and me approaching this thing to have a good time and maybe tell a fun story.

It’s also the difference from me stressing out about quality if things aren’t going my way. It IS okay to just stop, to scrap a bad idea that isn’t working. I’m really, really bad at that because of that aforementioned stubbornness and spite, but hey, at least I know it’s an option this go around.

I don’t know if I’ll start this next book tomorrow or not. I want to, but I’m also drowning in projects and am not sure what will need to be cut from my life to work on this. However, sooner rather than later, I’ll pledge a hundred days of writing a day until I have a shiny new turd of a first draft. I’ll then spend a year polishing said turd.

Because that’s what writing means to me!

Travis S Taylor: On to the Asteroid Review

My history with Travis S. Taylor as an author has been a rocky one. I enjoyed his contributions to the four Looking Glass books by John Ringo, though I’ll acknowledge that those novels are kind of a mess. (I’ll also acknowledge that I’d love a fifth installment.) After those, I jumped into his solo stuff with One Day on Mars and The Tau Ceti Agenda and found both to be poorly-written disasters of childish ideas and one-dimensional characters. I never did finish The Tau Ceti Agenda despite my best efforts to.

When Onto the Asteroid showed up … well, it was either this or an abysmal vampire spy novel. And hell, I was glad to see an apocalyptic story that didn’t involve zombies—seriously, those things are everywhere now. Bring on the mass destruction!

Of course, hindsight says I should have just not read either novel and saved myself the pain of this 330-page slog. Whoops.

Let’s start with the plot: Some new company wants to mine asteroids. Sure. I can dig that! They launch a rocket, stick an engine onto an asteroid, and start driving it towards Earth. I can dig this too. The problem is, the engine fails, and now the asteroid is heading right for our little blue planet. It probably won’t end humanity, but it will destroy society as we know it.

As far as plots go, it’s not inspired, but it’ll do. However, it doesn’t quite end here.

Instead of NASA taking care of this asteroid thing, we turn towards a second company that wants to start a hotel on the moon. Gary Childers is a super billionaire philanthropist who loves space, and since he’s got more money than anyone needs, he gets a bunch of say in how this is going to go down. He also has a really nice spaceship because money. NASA? No. His pilot is going to the moon, even though there are more-qualified people for the job.

See, there’s this strange undercurrent throughout On to the Asteroid that super rich people without limits or rules will save the day. Yeah, that one rich guy set the asteroid towards Earth, but he doesn’t count because there’s a better rich guy who has our back. He’s the nicest person in the whole world, someone you just can’t hate unless you’re a crazy terrorist, and he’s also really smart or something too. The novel goes into pain-stacking detail to make you want to love him no matter what because he is a dirty, dirty Gary Stu.

And because he has money, he can make things happen faster and better since the government can’t get in his way. It’s why there’s going to be a hotel on the moon.

Politically, I don’t like this set of ideals one little bit. It would be nice if the novel had some balance to it, but the evil rich company who set this mess off are ignored so Gary Stu Childers can work his magic, care about everyone more than himself, and then almost die a few times because we’re supposed to care if that happens.

The sad thing is, Gary Stu Childers is the only memorable character in the whole novel. The spaceship crew all blend together into some kind of grey sludge, and everyone else on Earth quickly become unimportant unless they’re really rich. The crazy terrorist stands out by being a crazy terrorist, but he’s just as boring as everyone else.

His shtick, by the way, is that someone hurt his honor so he doesn’t care if the world dies as long as he kills the people who metaphorically wronged him. It’s a real shame too, because his wild-card element should have been tense and fun, but instead it was just another paint-by-numbers thing to find boring. The end to his reign of terror is also so anticlimactic that it’s actually kind of offensive.

Everything about On to the Asteroid is uninspired, but being boring is the least of this novel’s problems.

Travis S. Taylor is not a good writer. His prose is awful—it’s more bland than his characters, all of whom sound the exact same—he seems to thrive on grammatical errors like a vampire does blood, all of his action sequences are grotesquely childish in execution, and his use of hard science turns what should be interesting sequences into choppy pieces of technical writing that are best skipped over.

Baen puts a, “this is an unproofed review copy” warning before all of its .pdfs, but even if that’s the case, there’s no excuse for the amount of typos, grammatical errors, style errors, continuity errors, and general writing nonsense found in this novel. What I read is a second draft, not something that should go on store shelves.

I’m not the biggest fan of hard science fiction, but I will acknowledge that it can better a book. The Martian would not be compelling without the formulas and essays on botany. Plus, Andy Wier makes it interesting. Hell, the same can be said of the aforementioned John Ringo books, whose bits and pieces of particle physics are really quite fun, if not a little too overbearing.

In On to the Asteroid, the hard science is used in the absolute worst way it could be, covering up action with facts and then skipping past the action so we can get back to our boring characters on their boring journey. None of it is fun to read, none of it is enlightening, and all of it should be removed. It does nothing for the narrative.

On to the Asteroid is a bad book. It’s a poorly-written mess of boring ideas in a boring execution that I almost did not finish. I wanted to stop around the middle, but I figured there had to be some kind of little twist hidden near the end, since there was so much left to go. There wasn’t. Instead, a 250 page novel is dragged out past its prime, bogged down by needless facts, repetition, and about a thousand other writing problems that should not be in a product people pay for.

Or to put this another way: When I hit the last hundred pages, I wasn’t geared up to sprint through them like a good book would have me do; instead, I began to skim, reading every other paragraph in hopes of something worth my time to show up.

Nothing worth my time ever showed up.

 

 

Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence Review

Reviewers note: My review copy of I Am Providence was provided by Edelweisse for WeTheNerdy.com, but the review hasn’t gone up yet because [redacted] made a mistake. The novel releases August 9th, 2016

When I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever really enjoyed a who-done-it story. As soon as I know I’m involved in one, I of course try and piece the clues together to figure out who murdered whom and with what. The problem is, guessing right isn’t all that validating when you want to be surprised, yet guessing wrong usually leaves me feeling like I’ve been tricked in a bad way.

It’s all fun and games until the ending, when it’s either annoyance or disappointment. There’s a reason why I stay away from the genre.

The reason I didn’t skip over I am Providence by Nick Mamatas is that I really, really enjoyed The Last Weekend, his previous novel which came out earlier in the year. (Aside: Congrats Nick on releasing two books in a year! Damn!) I’m willing to take genre risks if I know I like the author.

I Am Providence was sold to me as a horror novel, though there’s little scare to be had. Much like The Last Weekend, it’s a character study on terrible people, or in this case, character studies. The plot takes place at The Summer Tentacular, a con for Lovecraft enthusiasts, all of whom are awful, twisted, and strange in their own delightful ways. The main characters are Colleen and Panossian; the former a newbie to the event and the latter a cynical writer who gets himself murdered.

Panossian’s death isn’t a spoiler since half the novel is narrated by him as fading ghost trapped inside his own dead body. He remembers everything up until the point where he was killed and his face was removed, but not that last crucial bit.

That right there is the only scary part of the book. It’s a terrible thought, being trapped in your corpse while waiting to be embalmed or even buried, stuck forever in blackness. It’s one of the irrational reasons I want to be cremated when I die. At least I’d get blown all over the place and get to view the sky.

The way Panossian handles the whole thing takes some of the scare away though. He’s obviously not happy about it, but much like Billy of The Last Weekend, there’s something a bit too fun about his depression and desperation that turns it from horror into a dark comedy. Panossian has a wonderful voice and tons of opinions, and since he has nothing but time, he lets his mind wander. He jumps from backstory to facts on Lovecraft to his opinions on those who attend the Tenatulcar every year (none of which are positive). It’s more fun than it should be.

The one thing Nick Mamatas can do without fault is create deranged, awful characters that you can’t help but enjoy and feel sorry for.

Colleen too is fun in her own right, acting as straight man in a sea of strange people, some of whom are outright misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, slightly crazy, obsessed, or some combination of all of the above. She acts as a good lens with which to view the event and the murder.

However, she doesn’t act as a good lens to solve the murder, which is a problem. While the cops question the event-goers—most of whom don’t care that Panossian is dead because he was a right prick when alive—Colleen takes it upon herself to help out. She does this by being nosey and all around annoying. The police tell her over and over to stop what she’s doing, and she rationalizes that as, “they want me to keep helping!”

Her attitude, and thus the bulk of the novel, drove me nuts. Colleen turned from a good reader stand-in to someone that was just obnoxious, which isn’t what you want out of a reader stand-in.

Halfway into the book, I was starting to grow a bit bored of the dynamic. Panossian makes a mental ass of himself, and Colleen upsets everyone around her by asking questions no one really wants to dwell on. Thankfully, there’s a nice little twist just when it’s all becoming unbearable.

But this is a who-done-it story, so we have to talk about the ending. I…didn’t like it.

The big problem is that there are too many characters, and once we’re getting a tally of all of the possible suspects, I realized I couldn’t remember who half of them where. When every character but one or two is unhinged, they all start to blur together. It really became a problem when a certain someone was looking like the prime suspect and I honestly couldn’t recall a detail on him.

The little problem is the whole thing wraps up a bit too cleanly. For a novel that’s really into Lovecraft (every chapter is named after one of his short stories, and there are enough facts about Lovecraft that this could be used as a source for a literary paper on the man), it has little to do with his stories as a whole. There’s nothing cosmic or scary, and the end answer was pretty unfulfilling.

I’m not sure if it would have been cliché if the end were some spooky, Azathoth-monster-dwelling-in-the-unknown affair, but it at least would have fit the framework.

And as strange of a complaint as this is, I kind of take umbrage with the way the book views these nerdy con goers. Yeah they’re all terrible people who you’d go well out of your way to avoid at a Comic Con, but I can at least empathize with some of their core fears and obsessions. I worry about not going anywhere with my creative endeavors, and I certainly obsess over nerdy subculture more than I probably should.

I Am Providence doesn’t always feel like it’s on their side though, laughing with them. No, often I feel like the novel is laughing at them. It makes sense within Panossian’s chapters since his are in first person and he’s a bit of a dick, but Colleen is handled from the third-person past perspective. Some of the nastier observations don’t feel like they come from her subjective voice but the author’s omniscient one.

I suppose of all the who-done-it books I’ve read, I Am Providence is the one I’ve liked the most. The setting, the tone, and the writing are all really good and enjoyable, and most of the characters are fun to observe from afar. There really is a lot to like. But damn, I disliked some of Colleen’s actions, and I wasn’t thrilled by the ending.

I suppose if you really like this kind of story, then this is a good example of it and one you’ll enjoy. If you’re curious, I’d say read the excerpts on Amazon. The first chapter is a good indication of what you’re getting into.

If you aren’t a fan of who-done-its, then this one isn’t likely going to change your mind on the genre.

Or flip a coin or something. I dunno. What do you want from me?

Spiderlight: Book Review

Reviewer’s Note: My copy of Spiderlight was provided by Tor. The novel releases on August 2nd, 2016 and can be preordered here

It’s probably fair to say that anyone who likes fantasy as a genre has a long history with high fantasy as a part of that genre. Heroes off to save the world from evil gods, warlords, or, in some cases, both! It’s fun stuff, or at least was. My high-school days were filled with Warcraft and Dragonlance and probably other examples of big magic, one-dimensional villains, and Mary Sue heroes doing what Mary Sue heroes do.

As an adult though, I really have no time for it.

Unless…unless an author can really change things around, play with expectations, and in general, have fun with the absurdity of five rag-tag heroes off to save the world from a badguy so big that armies can’t topple him. I might be on board for that.

Oh hello Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky, how are you this fine day? Off to tell a story about five rag-tag heroes on a quest to save the world by transforming a giant spider into a man and forcing him on your journey? That’s different. Are you also not going to take your story too seriously because let’s face it, high fantasy is absurd? Good. How about playing with my expectations? Wonderful!

There are a few key things that make Spiderlight a joyful and interesting experience, but the biggest one is Nth. Nth is a spider with limited sapience. He doesn’t like humans unless he’s eating them, and he loves his brood mother. That’s about it. Or it would be had our wizard character Penthos not twisted and contorted him into the shape of a man and given him more intellect than he knows what to do with.

On first glance, Nth is your standard fish-out-of-water character; however, Spiderlight messes with that trope by making him as pitiful as possible. He isn’t a hero; he’s a slave to the heroes. He hates being a human, and he hates these new concepts and emotions he’s now forced to endure.

It doesn’t help that everyone hates him too.

The setup makes it very easy to sympathize with Nth and downright revile his companions who are supposed to be on the side of Light. Dion is a paladin! Harathes is too! The other three are…well, less heroic, but still on the side of righteousness. They should know better, and in your typical high-fantasy world where good is good and evil is evil, they would have. This isn’t your typical high-fantasy world though, so Penthos looks at Nth like he’s his property, Dion thinks it a necessary abomination and wants to kill it, Harathes hates it and wants to kill it, Cyrene finds it revolting and wants to kill it, and Lief… Lief doesn’t really care. He’s a thief though, and they have to be aloof.

However, it is the above thoughts that turn our five ragtag heroes into an interesting bunch of characters. Each one is struggling with something, and Nth acts as the catalyst to bring that out. Penthos is the most gifted mage in the world, but he doesn’t understand people or the general concept of right and wrong. He does like fire though! Dion is overcome with guilt over her quest for a variety of reasons, Nth being the big one. Cyrene is a bit of a misanthrope because of how she’s treated as a warrior woman, and Lief is…well, Lief. But I like him so that’s fine.

Harathes is the only character who doesn’t see any real development throughout the novel, but when you have five others that do, that’s okay. Five protagonists in a novel is a lot.

Spiderlight isn’t a big novel (also a departure from high fantasy), but it is packed with character from start to finish. I went from hating most of the aforementioned “heroes” to liking and respecting all of them (save Harathes) over a very short amount of time. They’re all defined by their flaws first and change by either overcoming or at least acknowledging them. That’s a lot of character work.

It’s also all handled seamlessly. You don’t notice it until a bit after it’s happened, and then you go, “oh wow!”

All of this might sound pretty meaty and dour, and in a way it is, but Spiderlight is also fine with levity and having fun. Penthos is hilarious in how he talks and presents himself, Leif is charming and enjoys himself a drink, and Harathes and Cyrene have some pretty amusing drama and banter. Whenever the novel feels like it’s getting too dark or serious, it moves into a scene—seamlessly at that—that kills some of the nasty. It never gets dark or edgy.

Dion is the only character who constantly stays serious, but her emotional turmoil is perhaps greater than Nths in a way. She’s also never included in any of the jokes because she’s the hero and the hero has to be heroic and on task. It’s tragic and makes her just as sympathetic as Nth.

I suppose there are some flaws to Spiderlight, though they aren’t anything major. I wasn’t a fan of Tchaikovsky’s writing style at first. It’s very simple and streamlined, and I’m used to more flowery prose and descriptions in my fantasy novels. He also likes his adverbials. None of this breaks the immersion though, and after a few chapters, I grew to appreciate the way he turned out a sentence. Brevity is the soul of wit and whatnot.

And despite busting a bunch of expectations and being a different kind of high-fantasy novel, Spiderlight does fall into some pretty standard tropes. Our party is built of a tank (Harathes), a healer (Dion), a mage (Penthos), a thief (Lief), and a ranger (Cyrene). I found this clever when I first read Dragons of Autumn’s Twilight in high school, but at this point, it’s just kind of boring. Thankfully the characters all drastically elevate themselves over their base roles, but still, I’d have liked something a bit different.

The ending too is…somewhat of a problem. It is unexpected, but it also reads like Tchaikovsky thought himself very, very clever. It’s its own joke, but now I’m the one being made fun of and not someone in the story. I also feel like the more I think about it, the more holes I find in it.

That being said, it is satisfying, and it does fit with the tone and parameters set within the novel. It isn’t a bad ending, yet it…well, it just rubbed me the wrong way.

On the whole, Spiderlight is a great little book in a genre I had written off quite some time ago. I had a blast with it, and the few little things I dislike are pretty minor and may not bother you at all. It’s brimming with character, and while the world or quest themselves aren’t all that interesting when compared to bigger, flashier fantasy novels, they aren’t really the goal here. This is a character book first, and a good cast of characters will always trump plot and world building.

Unshelfish Lovers (Aquaman Porn)

Okay, so the long and short of this is that I do a comic book podcast called Comics Dash, where I and two other people talk about comic books for about an hour and ten minutes each week. One of our running jokes is that Aquaman and Black Manta have tons of sexual tension in the new run of DC books–because they totally do–and if Dan Abnett wasn’t going to make them have sex, then someone had to.

Well, that someone was me!

So yes. I wrote Aquaman porn. No, it’s not good. Yes, it is a vessel for tons of fish puns. That’s…literally all it is. If you want some sexy fish puns, then the next ~1000 words are for you!

 

Aquaman closed his chamber door sporting a wide grin that would soon have a dick in it. His wife knew something fishy was going on, and that’s why he had taken a hook out of Bill Cosby’s hat—who once terrorized Atlantis as the Morerape Eel—and asked Mera to toast the recapture of Black Manta. She had taken the bait. Now she was sleeping with the literal fishes, but in the metaphorical sense since she’d wake up tomorrow with probably a bad hangover and wondering why there was seamen on her back. But probably not. Being a man of the sea, Aquaman was prawn to wet dreams.

The king of Atlantis made his way through his castle, descended a bunch of steps, and walked through a few gloomy hallways, stopping every so often to make sure he wasn’t being followed. His conchubine … oh wait, no, conchubrine! was in the dungeon, which meant he had to be careful. It would be one thing if Atlantis found out he was cheating on his wife, but a whole coddamn mess if they found out his lover was Black Manta.

Still, that made the whole thing all the more fun. Something about keeping your friends close and your anenemoies closer, though at this point, Black Manta was neither. What should one do with his lovers?

Aquaman rubbed at his crotch, which was stiffer than a sturgeon’s nose, and knew exactly what he should do with his lover.

“Halt! Who goes there!” the two soldiers stationed to guard the undersea terrorist asked as Aquaman approached. They looked on edge because Black Manta always escaped. Always. It was all part of the clam.

“I am here to question the prisoner,” Aquaman said in his most offishal voice. “Please let us be until I call you back.”

“Yes sir” both said, urchin to be free of the most cursed post in all of Atlantis. Aquaman watched them round a corner, their shoulders relaxed and their spears clanking against the stone floor as they headed for the break room. Aquaman listened, herring their footsteps fade into the background.

“Please tell me you aren’t wearing orange and fucking green,” Black Manta said sharkastically. He was facing the wall and not wearing a shirt.

“Have to.” Aquaman said as he closed the door. “I look krilliant in orange and green.”

The undersea terrorist laughed, his voice deep and sexy because he was deep and sexy. “You look like a clownfish.”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

Black Manta tuna round, and soon he and Aquaman were wrapped in a pike embrace and staring into each other’s walleyes. Black Manta’s were like green pools of ocean water, and Aquamans were blue or some shit. Back Manta then kissed his lover, so gently that it was like a ghost upon Aquaman’s lips.

“I missed you,” the scarred terrorist said.

“Always. But did you have to kill eight people this time?”

Black Manta tugged at Aquaman’s crotch. “You know it’s more fun this way.”

Aquaman grabbed at Black Manta’s ass with both hands and brought him close so their ol’ dicky dicks were rubbing together. Even with his pants still on, he could dophinatly feel Black Manta’s black manta throbbing … uh … lustily! Aquaman leaned in close and whispered into his lover’s ear: “It is better this way.”

Black Manta knelt and unbuckled Aquaman’s ugly green pants. He then placed his finger on Aquaman’s tridick and ran it from the tip to the dace. It didn’t take very long because Aquaman had a small penis. Though he didn’t consider it small; he just had a bad case of the shrimpage. Plus, it was still much bigger than the Flash’s who fucking sucks and should be ashamed for existing.

“That feels good,” Aquaman said.

“This will feel better.”

Black Manta opened his mouth and began salmonating all over Aquaman’s member. Aquaman groaned.

“Don’t even think about it!” Black Manta warned between suckerfishing. “I’m just lubing this up so you can stick your hotdog flavored water it into my chocolate starfish.”

“Never!” But Aquaman blushed because it totally happened one time. He had a hair triggerfish when it came to ejaculating.

When Black Manta finished, he shifted anglers and pulled his own pants down, exposing his tight basshole.

“Stick it in where the sunfish don’t chine and oyster it around,” he said in his deep, sexy voice because he was still deep and sexy in case you forgot.

Aquaman obliged. He thrust his throbbing member into Black Manta’s halibut, forcing it in so far their balls slapped together, which made it totally gay. It’s hetero if the balls don’t touch. His lover made a face, and Aquaman knew it would stringray a bit. Black Manta was still getting used playing the role of powerbetam. It had to be this way though, because Aquaman was a king and, despite having a small penis and suffering from premature ejaculation, could not be a bottom. That would just be orcaward.

It only took a few quick threshes before Aquaman was breaching his salty chum into Black Manta’s tight carphole. “Ugh,” Aquaman groaned, pleasure shivering through his loins.

“My turn,” Black Manta said, turning around. His penis was huge and already dribbling precum.

Aquaman knelt down and opened his mouth, goblin sharking as much of the penis as he could. Like Black Manta with anal, he wasn’t very good at deep trouting.

“Just relax,” Black Manta said. “You don’t have to take the whale thing. And if it gets uncomfortable, let minnow.”

Aquaman wasn’t normally koi, but Black Manta could somehow make him blush with ease. He felt his face heat up, and Black Manta began to laugh.

“You’re cute like this.”

On his knees and with his ugly green pants still around his ankles, the king of Atlantis suckerfished the worst terrorist the sea had ever known to completion. A salty, warm spray filled his mouth, and now the last question was: Should be squid it out or swallow?

With a light shrug, Aquaman gulpered it down. It wouldn’t do to have the guards come back and find an empty cell filled with cum. That would raise some strange questions and make the custodians crabby.

Black Manta sat back down on his cot, and Aquaman sat next to him. For the next twenty minutes, the two cuddlefished together, happy to be in each others’ company. Then it was time for Aquaman to leave, though not before hiding the key to his secret lover’s cell underneath the cot.

“Until next time,” he said, wondering if Black Manta would be cool with taking a huge crappie on his chest.

“Until next time,” Black Manta repeated.

 

FIN (get it?)

What Live Music Means to Me

I’ve been meaning to write about live music for some time now, and I guess the day after attending a major festival in Oshkosh WI is as good a time as any. Rock USA, you rule, and I’ll be going back next year (unless Rockfest in Cadott WI has a better lineup that is (sorry, them’s the breaks)).

I have this little internal joke that going to a concert is like going to church. I’m not religious at all, but I do believe spirituality can be found anywhere if you’re looking hard enough. To connect with something greater than you is powerful. To feel small is powerful. To feel exhilarated is powerful. To feel part of a whole is powerful. Hell, to feel is powerful.

When David Draiman of Disturbed humbly asked us all to hold our phones and lighters up for his cover of “The Sound of Silence,” I turned around and looked at the giant field that is the Ford Festival concert venue. I lost my breath. The scene was gorgeous: almost a hundred thousand people in a pitch-blackness holding up little dots of light. It was like being on the same plane as space itself.

In that moment, I helped turn a dark field into a work of art.

It’s funny. During the day at work, I feel like a little piece too, a cog in a machine that will run and run until it burns me out and I’m replaced. It’s not fun feeling small there. Yet at a concert, when I’m one voice in thousands, I feel special, important. I feel like I’m helping to make something amazing.

“Get the fuck up!” Corey Taylor of Slipknot screams, and everyone jumps up and down on command. The ground doesn’t shake, but I like to pretend it does. “Oshkosh, show me your horns!” Caleb Shomo of Beartooth demands, and every fist isin the air. If the devil is real, then his grin is probably as big as mine.

We are all loud. We are all sweaty. We are all smiling like people gone mad! And for a full hour, we are all one, this big, amorphous mass of bodies all focused on a group of artists who are having just as much fun as we were, if not more.

It’s not about deadlines or money or acting like an adult in a world that’s hard; its’ about letting loose and having as much fun as possible. It’s about swearing and jumping and looking at the stranger next to you and grinning because damn it, yes you can scream louder than he can.

It’s gorgeous. It’s fucking gorgeous.

My first concert was in 2008. I was a freshman in college and unable to drink in public. I had no real interest in live music at that point, figuring if I wanted to jam, I could throw a CD on and be content. But my mom wanted to see Shinedown and Avenged Sevenfold and Buckcherry, and she was treating. I went along.

I want to say I was hooked after that show, because I remember it vividly. Shinedown blew me away. I didn’t think you could get that kind of quality music live. It just didn’t seem possible, not with all the mixing, mastering, second takes, and general work that goes into creating the perfect sound. Avenged Sevenfold blew me away. I didn’t think you could get that kind of energy in one place. We broke the barricade between the stage and the floor! It took twenty minutes to get it back up so they could continue their set.

I want to say I was hooked, but I wasn’t. It wouldn’t be until 2011 when Avenged Sevenfold came back to La Crosse that I’d go to my second concert. I needed to see them again! Plus, they promised to come back, and I promised to return. It was an audible contract between a good few thousand people, and if they were holding up their end, then I had to as well.

That show. That’s when it clicked that I had to go to these things whenever I could. Between 2011 and 2016, I’ve gone to at least five concerts a year, tallying up 79 different bands and tons of repeats. I’ve seen Shinedown five times, and in a few weeks, I’ll be seeing Bobaflex for my sixth time.

I have stories. None of them are the crazy, the kind you’d expect. I’ve never done drugs or gotten laid or snuck backstage to do blow and hookers with a rock star. I was once invited to watch to people have sex though, and I did once sneak backstage with my drunken mother and her friend to meet Monkey Wrench (local cover band) and Royal Bliss. I walked out of that scenario with a birthday cake.

Not a piece of birthday cake. A full fucking birthday cake.

I’ve witnessed fights at Five Finger Death Punch concerts, I’ve almost been in fights at Five Finger Death Punch concerts, I did shots of Jager with Bobaflex, I’ve talked concept albums with Starset, I talked crowd funding with Royal Bliss, I told Otherwise that tracking them down to get their signatures was harder than collecting Pokemon cards, I watched three people play one guitar at a Nothing More show, and I was almost thrust into a circle pit at a Nonpoint show.

I’ve met and connected with more people than I can count for minutes or seconds as we talked bands, moshed, or maybe just exchanged knowing smiles.

I say none of this to brag but to try and showcase how each live show is its own special, unforgettable event about people coming together and connecting over something they love.

I’ll end this on a quick story. Back in March I went to the Minneapolis to see Nightwish. I enjoyed Delain as an opening act, and then out come a Finnish power metal band called Sonata Artica. I only knew a few of their songs from Youtube, and judging by the crowd, I wasn’t alone there. We were all there to see Nightwish and anyone else was just icing on that lovely cake.

So Sonata Artica start playing and it becomes pretty apparent that they’re amazing. They quickly steel all of our hearts, and damned if none of us are upset about that.

Then they start playing this song called, “I Have a Right” which is 90% chorus. The lyrics are, “I have a right to be heard, / To be seen, to be loved, to be free, / To be everything I need to be me, /To be safe, to believe in something.” The first time they sing this, it’s awesome. I catch all the words and the melody, and damn if I don’t agree with what is being said. Then they sing them again. And again. And again.

By the time that song was done, the whole crowd was singing alongside them, so loud you could no longer hear the band. We went from knowing zero of those lyrics to all of them.

In that moment, we were all on the same page, all one big voice, and whatever the “something” is in that song, we all believed it at the same time.